A West Midlands college has taken the highly unusual step of mounting a legal challenge to budget cuts and is making a claim for pound;30 million in backdated funding.
Bilston Community College has sent a 60-page document to the Department for Education and Employment, protesting at funding criteria which they say "run counter to government thinking on lifelong learning and penalise the unemployed, ethnic minorities and students with learning difficulties".
The appeal centres on the Further Education Funding Council's refusal to sanction Schedule 2 funding for a range of courses which the college claims have been eligible for support elsewhere. "We are concerned about what appears to be discrimination," says Alan Millington, chair of the college's corporation. "We are aware of many colleges which run courses similar to those at Bilston that are currently claiming funding under the same rules."
The college says that a proposed 2 per cent - or pound;3.5 million - cut in their 1997-98 budget, would mean some 4,000 students could lose their places. Training for ethnic-minority applicants to the police and fire service - which have helped more than 100 people find jobs - will also be affected and basic skills courses for church groups which are delivered under the title of "Biblical Studies" are also falling foul of FEFC funding definitions. The college's so-called "new community education", which evolved from its response to the retraining needs of people made redundant by the closure of a British Steel plant in 1979, is also under threat because it does not meet Schedule 2 criteria that students show "progression" within two years to GCSE level or equivalent in order to qualify for funding.
Such rules, the college argues, ration education for people unable to achieve a recognised vocational qualification within that timescale. The college insists that the new community education programmes, which have been the main reason behind the growth in student numbers - from nearly 11,000 in 1993-94 to just over 50,000 in 1996-97 - have always been vocational in intent, even though they may not meet the FEFC's definition.
The college's appeal is on the grounds that the FEFC have acted "unreasonably" and "in breach of duty", under the terms of the 1996 Education Act and the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act respectively.
"The issue of lifelong learning is at the core of this fight," says college principal and chief executive Keith Wymer." The Government has stated through the Kennedy report its commitment to education for all and to the widening of participation in education in this country. What we are doing at Bilston is exactly that."